Tyrone got their league campaign off to the best possible start with a battling three points win over Ulster neighbours Down in a bruising and hard-fought encounter at Pairc Esler in Newry on Saturday night, writes Kevin Kelly.
It was a game that threatened to boil over on a number of occasions as tempers flared with the home side in particular guilty of at least five high tackles during the game which went unpunished by referee Barry Cassidy.
To say that the Bellaghy official had a poor game would be a gross understatement, with a number of his decisions leaving both sides baffled - and that only added to the tension.
Things flared up along the side line as well at the final whistle bu,t in the end ,Tyrone took the two league points and that’s all that mattered.
The visitors would be first to admit that they didn’t play well on the night, particularly in the first half, although having said that lifted their performance to another level when the game was in the melting pot.
The Mourne men flooded men behind the ball and at times played with two sweepers while they attacked in droves and it was a tactic that was clearly working as they led 0-7 to 0-3 after twenty five minutes.
Tyrone though closed out the first half on top and no doubt they would have been reasonably happy to have only trailed by two points at the short whistle as Down had been much the sharper side.
In the second half though Down were limited to just two scores with their goal in the 52nd minute proving to be their last of the contest.
That major from Donal O’Hare came in the next attack after Carrickmore’s Mark Donnelly had hit a thunderbolt into the top right hand corner of the net.
In the closing quarter Tyrone played with more assurance with substitute Conor Clarke making a major impact and it was points from the Omagh man as well as Sean Cavanagh and team captain Stephen O’Neill that saw the Red Hands over the line.
This was just the type of opening game that Mickey Harte would have hoped for as the pace was a lot quicker than their McKenna Cup outings and it sets them up nicely for next weekend’s difficult trip to Castlebar to take on last season’s All Ireland finalists Mayo.
There was only a minute game on the clock when midfielder Cavanagh opened the scoring from a free but Down wasted little time in responding with Benny Coulter landing a fine effort from play.
Conor McAliskey then marked his National League debut with a well taken point but by the 14th minute the home side had established a 0-4 to 0-2 lead thanks to scores from Connaire Harrison, O’Hare and Coulter.
By that stage Tyrone could have had a goal as a superb pass from defender Ryan McKenna picked out O’Neill who was unlucky to see his shot come back off the post.
O’Hare and Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan traded points from frees before Down right half back Ryan Mallon surged forward for an outstanding score.
Down midfielder Kalum King then somehow stayed on the field after a tackle on Joe McMahon having been booked earlier. Down continued to attack at pace and when Mallon hit another eye catching scored they looked to be well in control.
Cathal McCarron blocked a Coulter goal effort but either side of that scores from McAliskey from play and another long range free from Morgan helped take Tyrone back into contention to leave it all to play for in the second period.
Within fifteen seconds of the restart O’Neill had split the posts after taking a pass from Cavanagh but Down responded with another free from the boot of O’Hare.
Down keeper Michael Cunningham then came to his side’s rescue to deny McKenna a goal before a fabulous score from out on the right wing was followed by one from Clarke sixty seconds later to level the argument.
Tyrone now had their tails up and they struck for a brilliant goal in the 16th minute when substitute Martin Penrose picked out McAliskey who offloaded for Donnelly to give Cunningham no chance with a thumping shot to the net.
The celebrations had barely died down though when the home side responded in kind at the other end of the field with full forward Harrison squaring the ball for O’Hare to palm in from close range.
It was anybody’s game at this stage but when Tyrone had Joe McMahon dismissed for a second yellow card offence fourteen minutes from time the pendulum appeared to have swung in favour of Down.
That’s when Tyrone really stood up to be counted with Clarke, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Mark Donnelly running forcibly at a visibly tiring Down rearguard.
McKenna and McAliskey combined for Clarke to put Tyrone in front and as the Down challenges became more undisciplined the Red Hands made them pay.
Cavanagh knocked over a placed ball before O’Neill fired over a wonderful free from out near the right touchline.
Down were finally reduced to fourteen men in injury time, when Conor Laverty picked up a second booking on a night when this new look Tyrone side showed great battling qualities to chisel out a result.